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Support the Unique Learning Student Media Provides

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By working as a team producing school publications, students learn practical lessons in communication and in civic responsibility. They write for an audience of their peers instead of for their teachers. They research by interview rather than just by internet developing people skills not taught in other classes. They develop critical thinking skills, learn to meet deadlines, work within a budget and as part of a team. Presenting their work in a graphically attractive manner is another unique skill.
Even more importantly, they learn first hand the civic lessons our forefathers intended when they built a free press into our democracy.
Only a few of these students will seek a journalistic career, but they will all be more informed consumers of the media and understand its essential role in a democracy.
HOWEVER!!!!
Student media can lead to conflict between students and school authorities that can lead to suppression of the very learning these classes should foster. Randy Swikle, with a grant from the McCormick Foundation, is working on methods to prevent these conflicts. They term these methods as ethical protocol. They stress working together to come up with ways to insure that students are responsible journalists free to inform their peers in a professional manner.
Covering controversial subjects in newspapers is part of our democratic process, but covering them responsibly in school publications involves learning about journalistic laws, ethics and takes much more time and effort than covering the latest basketball game. However, that process also leads to the most intense learning experience for the student staff. Balancing sources, researching legal language, seeking truth when it is hard to find is a top notch learning opportunity.
Too many administrators and even advisers take the easier route and just don’t allow student to write about controversial topics. Sadly, many administrators expect their advisers to fill that censorship role. Most of these advisers are trained to be English teachers or photography teachers. They haven’t been taught basic tenets of journalism and its role in a free society.
Administrators would never hire a basketball coach who had never even played basketball and, although he or she may have seen some games, hadn’t studied the rules.
In the same way, just having read some newspapers, doesn’t make an English teacher a journalism expert.
Administrators should search for a qualified adviser. They should encourage and support advisers who get additional training at workshops and in on-line classes or college programs. They should encourage advisers to establish a relationship with local newspapers who are a great source of advice about professional standards for content.
Advisers should seek mentors, either formally through JEA, or informally by seeking out superior publications and then asking their advisers for help. E-mail makes that easy and teachers can talk one on one with Skype and other programs that make communication easier.
Students should seek professional and legal help when they need it. The Student Press Law Center’s job is to give legal advice free of charge at splc.org to any student or adviser who needs help with a legal issue for their publication. State laws vary and they know them all.
Professional editors often will answer e-mail questions about whether their paper would use a name or a word or phrase.
Then the students need to meet regularly with the administrator in charge at a their school and give that person information that will help when complaints arrive. If the administrator can say that the students carefully checked out a controversial story with legal and professional authorities, he or she is more comfortable stressing the importance of the process and the important lessons students learned in presenting the story.
I advise students to give the administrator that information after the story hits the halls but before the phone calls start.
Parents can help by giving the administrator and the adviser thanks for the important lessons their children have been learning by being in charge of the content of their publications. Too often administrators only get complaints and not praise from parents.
Journalism classes where students are given the freedom to explore their ideas responsibly and to present stories about what they feel their readers want and need to know are unique laboratories of learning.
Just as being on the first string of a sports team adds status and keeps students motivated, so does being on the staff of a top ranked school publication. No one wants to insure that a sports team will be second-rate, but some schools seem to be dedicated to making sure publications are. They are missing out on a chance to teach their students many important life skills that they can’t get in any other student activity.

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